Charles Krauthammer's flat-earther global warming folly

Krauthammer gets climate science and policy wrong in calling President Obama a "flat-earther"

Images from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California from 1997 show the build-up of the powerful El Niño Krauthammer cherry picks. Photograph: AP

Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer recently wrote an opinion piece that was published by many media outlets including The Washington Post, claiming that President Obama's Climate Action Plan is a "folly." In fact, the real follies lie in Krauthammer's arguments.

Krauthammer's article begins in a schizophrenic manner, claiming that "Global temperatures have been flat for 16 years — a curious time to unveil" a climate action plan, but then admitting that this "doesn't mean there is no global warming." Indeed it does not. In fact, over the past 16 years, the planet has accumulated an amount of heat equivalent to about 2 billion Hiroshima atomic bomb detonations. Krauthammer objects to the President's comment that "We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society," because we don't understand everything about the Earth's climate, like exactly why surface temperatures have warmed relatively slowly over the past 16 years (though we do have a good idea).

Of course, the choice of the 16-year window is a juicy cherry pick. It puts the starting point right at the formation of the 1997–1998 El Niño, one of the strongest in the past century. During El Niño events, heat is transferred from the oceans to the air, causing abnormally hot surface temperatures. Focusing on the slow surface air warming over the past 16 years is like arguing that your car is broken because it slowed down as you approached a stop sign. Krauthammer is focusing on an unrepresentative period during which the overall warming of the planet continued, but less heat was used in warming the air, and more in warming the ocean. However, climate research suggests that this is just a temporary change, and surface air warming will soon accelerate again.

Krauthammer also complains that "flat-earthers like Obama" have blamed heat waves on human-caused global warming. Indeed, recent research has shown that Australian heat waves and record-breaking monthly temperature records in general are now five times more likely to occur due to global warming, with much more to come. Papers have concluded that several individual heat records, like those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, would not have been broken if not for human-caused global warming. The video below from NASA shows how the distribution of summer temperatures has shifted towards hotter values over the past 60 years, making these heat records more likely to occur.

Krauthammer goes as far as to claim,

"It's flat-earthers like Obama who cite perennial phenomena such as droughts as cosmic retribution for environmental sinfulness."

In reality, research has shown that human-caused global warming has made droughts and heat waves more likely to occur.

After getting the science wrong while repeatedly wrongly calling the President of the United States a "flat-earther," Krauthammer goes on to claim that the US doesn't need to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants because "The United States has already radically cut carbon dioxide emissions". That is, if you think a 7.7 percent decrease over 6 years is "radical." These cuts have come for two main reasons - the US has transitioned away from coal to natural gas and renewable energy, and because of the recent economic recession.

Of course we can't rely on a permanent recession – our economy is already slowly recovering – and government greenhouse gas regulations will just make the transition away from coal power happen more quickly. Our goal is to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. We're on pace to meet that target, but that includes the reduced emissions from the recession. So if we're going to meet that goal in a recovering economy, we need a faster transition away from coal energy.

Next Krauthammer tries to say that US greenhouse gas emissions don't matter because China's emissions are higher and growing. This neglects the fact that historically, the US has emitted nearly 3 times more carbon despite having a population one-quarter that of China. Moreover, contrary to Krauthammer's claims that they refuse to take climate action, China is launching several local carbon emissions trading systems and has implemented policy changes to stop increasing its coal use. The presidents of China and the USA also recently agreed to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons – powerful greenhouse gases. Using China as an excuse to irresponsibly shirk America's climate responsibilities just won't fly anymore.

Finally, Krauthammer claims that regulating greenhouse gas emissions will kill "tens of thousands of jobs" and hurt the economy. Of course he provides no evidence to support this assertion – in fact we don't know the economic impact of these planned regulations, because they haven't yet been developed. However, studies have shown that EPA regulations generally have a modestly positive impact on the economy and jobs. A national study by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst also found that every dollar invested in clean energy creates two to three times as many jobs as putting that same dollar into coal and oil.

However, if Krauthammer objects to government greenhouse gas regulations, his criticisms are misplaced. Rather than attacking President Obama for enforcing the law, he should be pushing Congressional Republicans to work with their Democratic counterparts to come up with a better solution like a revenue neutral carbon tax.

Instead of blaming President Obama for doing what he can and is supposed to do, Krauthammer and his colleagues should be pressuring Congressional Republicans to do their jobs and begin participating in crafting the best possible solutions to the climate problem. We can't solve the problem until people like Krauthammer stop denying that it exists.





President Obama acts on climate change by enforcing the law

President Obama announced today that he will fulfill his pledge to address climate change by regulating carbon emissions

Barack Obama speaks as he unveils his plan on climate change at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In his state of the union speech this February, President Obama vowed,

If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

President Obama followed through on that promise today, unveiling a climate action plan that includes measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, accelerate renewable energy permitting on public lands, and prepare American infrastructure for the impacts of climate change.

The centerpiece of the plan is the announcement that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, in addition to the rules already in draft form that are set to regulate emissions from new power plants. The White House released a video to explain the importance of these steps in addressing climate change by decarbonizing the economy.

Republican House speaker John Boehner reacted to this news by calling the EPA regulations "absolutely crazy." However, in reality they're required by law.

Under the Bush Administration, the EPA refused to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The state of Massachusetts sued the EPA, and the case went all the way up to the US supreme court. In 2007, in a 5-4 decision with Justice Anthony Kennedy casting the deciding vote along with the four more liberal justices, the court ruled that if greenhouse gases were determined to endanger public health or welfare, the EPA would be required to regulate their emissions in accordance with the Clean Air Act.

The Bush EPA delayed the decision about the threat of greenhouse gas emissions until after he left office. After President Obama took office, the EPA issued its endangerment finding in 2009. Based on an evaluation of the best available scientific evidence like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and US national climate assessments, the EPA determined that greenhouse gas emissions clearly endanger public health and welfare via their impacts on climate change.

This finding meant that under the Clean Air Act, greenhouse gases meet the definition of "air pollutants," and the EPA would have to regulate their emissions from mobile and stationary sources (vehicles and power plants). Vehicle emissions were regulated via new fuel efficiency standards requiring cars and light trucks to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The newly announced power plant emissions are the EPA's enforcement of the Clean Air Act requirements for stationary sources.

On the one hand, with Congress refusing to implement any sort of climate legislation, regulating emissions from vehicles and power plants is the biggest single step President Obama can take to reduce American greenhouse gas emissions. He could have followed the Bush administration's strategy and tried to delay these regulations, forcing environmental groups to sue to make the courts require that the EPA enforce the law.

On the other hand, that is really all the Obama administration is doing – enforcing the law. Any opposition complaints that this decision is "crazy" or bypassing Congress are factually and legally wrong.

In fact, if Republicans want to eliminate these regulations, all they need to do is pass climate legislation to supersede them. A growing number of conservatives support implementation of a carbon fee and dividend system, for example. At the moment the majority of Republicans in Congress seem to deny that climate change is human-caused and/or a problem, and oppose taking any steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, there are now only two options available to them – let the government regulate greenhouse gas emissions, or pass climate legislation. Philosophically, Republicans generally oppose government regulations and support free-market solutions like carbon pricing; however, it appears that congressional Republicans would rather force the Obama administration to regulate emissions and then accuse them of "killing jobs", as Speaker Boehner already has.

On the contrary, studies have shown that EPA regulations generally have a modestly positive impact on the economy and jobs. A national study by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst also found that every dollar invested in clean energy creates two to three times as many jobs as putting that same dollar into coal, oil, and natural gas.

Ultimately the Obama administration deserves credit for implementing these greenhouse gas regulations in a timely manner rather than delaying as the previous administration did. His emphasis on the importance of decarbonizing the economy to address the threat of climate change in a comprehensive climate action plan is a major step towards addressing the threat of climate change. It's also important to remember that these regulations are required by law, and if congressional Republicans don't like them, they should propose a better solution of their own.

Brophy Tuesday 09 July 2013 - 11:11 pm | | Brophy Blog

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